The Visegrad Group is a political alliance of the four Central European countries of Hungary, Poland, Czechia, and Slovakia. Culturally aligned, along with sharing similar tragedies under Soviet rule, the bloc shared the same goals and objectives—up until the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Recent elections have titled the unity of the Visegrad 4, with two member states veering closer to Russian influence while the others move closer to the European Union.
Origins of the Political Alliance
Before the 20th century, the kings of Central Europe, Charles I of Hungary, John I of Bohemia (Czechia), and Casimir III of Poland established the Congress of Visegrad in 1335–their first political alliance to combat Habsburg influence.
The official Visegrad Group was formed during the collapse of the Soviet Union on February 15th, 1991. Here, in Visegrad, Hungary, Poland, and then Czechoslovakia, the former made a mission statement of distancing themselves from communist and Russian influence and reforming their countries towards NATO and European Union membership.
After Czechia and Slovakia agreed to a dissolution in 1993, the Visegrad 4/V4 finally joined the European Union on May 1st, 2004. Poland, Hungary, and Czechia would join NATO in 1999, while Slovakia joined five years later in 2004.
Culturally aligned, along with sharing similar tragedies under Soviet rule, the bloc shared the same goals and objectives—up until the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Recent elections have titled the unity of the Visegrad 4, with two member states veering closer to Russian influence while the others move closer to the European Union.
Rise of the Viktor Orban
The V4 has had a fluid yet functional start in the EU and NATO, especially with the defensive alliance. Nevertheless, actual conflicts inside both organizations did not truly boil over until the rise of populism, particularly Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party.
Originally running on reforms to progress Hungarians and stray away from Russian influence and imperialism, Orban’s Fidesz party has become the EU’s biggest headache. Already having a negative perception in the bloc due to Budapest’s lack of progressive laws and growing authoritarianism, Orban would only show his true colors during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
During the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, Orban’s Fidesz party has not only obstructed Kyiv’s NATO membership ambitions but also purposely blocks over $50 billion in EU aid to the war-battered nation. Orban’s Hungary also vetoed sanctions against Patriarch Kirill of Russia, who uses the Russian Orthodox Church as an arm of Moscow’s intelligence service, the FSB.
Viktor Orban, who continues to have the rhetoric of the old ‘Greater Hungary,’ uses myths of persecution of the Hungarian minority in the Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine—a region many Hungarian nationalists want to be returned to them.
Along with using Russian disinformation tactics, Orban’s government has manipulated the media inside of Hungary and is growing increasingly authoritarian. Aligning with Turkey’s blackmailing tactics over Sweden’s NATO membership and freezing EU funds for Ukraine, Hungary is now known as a ‘Trojan horse’ of Europe.
Other Visegrad Populists
Despite the blackmail and subverting the rule of law, Viktor Orban’s Hungary was sheltered by Poland’s more nationalist and populist PiS party and Slovakia’s Smer party, the latter emulating the same policies as the Hungarian autocrat.
Poland’s PiS, which also came under fire for straying from the rules of law, is a close ally of Hungary under Orban. However, recognizing the Russian threat in Ukraine, PiS still protected Fidesz from potential loss of voting rights and suspension from the EU.
The election victory of Petr Pavel as President of Czechia in the Spring of 2023 breathed new life into Central Europe, as Pavel is a staunch backer of military aid to Ukraine along with recognizing Russian disinformation and hybrid warfare tactics that currently affect the other Visegrad members.
Despite Pavel’s win, Smer gained the PM seat in the recent elections in Slovakia, with Robert Fico, a close friend of Viktor Orban, becoming the head of state. Fico’s Smer is another pro-Russian party that has called for ceasing military and economic aid to Ukraine, along with mirroring Fidesz’s anti-bloc policies.
Where Orban and Fico Fail, Pavel and Tusk Succeed
The Visegrad 4 are now separated into two camps—the pro-Russian populist wing of Viktor Orban and Robert Fico and the more progressive wing aligned to the Western values wing of Petr Pavel and Donald Tusk.
Robert Fico and Viktor Orban represent years of Russian disinformation and hybrid warfare in Europe, and the parties of Fidesz and Smer represent European parties the Kremlin has spent millions to influence. As populists continue to rise in Europe with factors such as weaponized migration, other pro-Russian parties continue to make gains, such as the AfD of Germany and the PVV of the Netherlands.
Donald Tusk, who helped end the farmer’s blockade on the Ukrainian border and refuses to give Orban clemency compared to his predecessor, continues to fight back against populism in Poland and Russian disinformation. Pavel, likewise, sees the threats of populism and information warfare that help prop up unstable hybrid regimes.
Tusk and Pavel, now forming a more moderate pro-EU wing, are helping to keep populism and Russian disinformation in Central Europe in check. Both Tusk’s and Pavel’s ministers could vote against Hungary’s voting rights, now being discussed in the Union.
Orban and Fico hinted they’re willing to relent on withholding Ukrainian aid, perhaps in fear of the lack of allies left in Europe as the populists only isolated themselves in the Visegrad 4 and EU.
Visegrad, a once powerful political alliance, now suffers from one of the hurdles that reformed the group in the 20th century—Russian influence. Where Czechia and, to a lesser extent, Poland successfully combat populism and disinformation, Hungary and Slovakia continue to falter.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Julian McBride is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist born in New York. He is the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO which aims to tell the stories of the victims of war through art therapy. As a former Marine, he uses this technique not only to help heal PTSD but also to share people’s stories through art, which conveys “the message of the brutality of war better than most news organizations.”